FEATURE/Are Taiwan's 'comfort women' destined to fade into history?
By Emerson Lim, CNA staff reporter
On November 10 at 5 p.m., Afra turned off the lights in the Ama Museum and those illuminating the signboard outside the historical structure housing it in Taipei for one last time.
The museum, housed in a rented Japanese-occupation era building in Dadaocheng District, was the only place dedicated to the memory of the more than 2,000 Taiwanese women who served as sex slaves for the Japanese military during World War II.
Only two of these women -- known euphemistically as "comfort women" or "amas" (grandmothers) -- are still alive today, according to the museum's operator, the Taipei Women's Rescue Foundation (TWRF), making the museum even more important as a repository of their memory.
"It's sad to see this happen, but we have to move forward," said Afra, who worked at the museum for years.
Opened in December 2016, the museum kept a collection of more than 5,000 photos and documents and some 750 objects related to the painful memories of 59 Taiwanese women who were forced to provide sex to Japanese soldiers.
Its financial difficulties since then, exacerbated this year by the COVID-19 pandemic, reflected in part the challenges of keeping people, especially the younger generation, engaged in history and ensuring that its lessons remain alive.
According to a TWRF report, the museum had lost NT$5 million (US$175,000) a year on average since its founding because of the costs of rent, building maintenance, collection preservation, and personnel expenses and low revenues because of the dwindling number of visitors.
In 2019, the museum attracted an average of 755 visitors per month, which only picked up to over 1,000 a month after news of the museum's imminent closure surfaced in July.
TWRF Executive Director Tu Ying-chiu (杜瑛秋) told CNA in an interview that the low visitor numbers "should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in the 'comfort women' issue."
The museum has had more than 120,000 visitors since it was opened, she said, but most of them visited in its first two years and few have returned because the exhibits have stayed relatively unchanged.
Particularly noticeable has been the absence of young Taiwanese, according to Tu, perhaps because of how little exposure they have to the issue in the media and in school.
Taipei City Councilor Lin Liang-chun (林亮君), who attended the museum's closing press briefing, said school textbooks say very little about the topic.
"That's why keeping the museum open is very important for younger generations, so they can learn about history not being taught in school," Lin said in a recent phone interview with CNA.
Lin tried to help find the museum a more affordable, government-owned space, but there were not any options that met the museum's needs, she said.
Currently, the TWRF is actively pursuing a plan to relocate the museum in the first half of 2021 to a new site -- a much smaller private office unit about a kilometer away from the previous location.
A fundraising campaign was launched between Oct. 15 and Nov. 30 with a goal of raising NT$1.5 million (US$52,100) to support the operations of the museum at its new home.
As of Nov. 30, more than 1,000 donors exceeded the goal, raising over NT$1.6 million.
Fan Yun (范雲), a Taiwanese legislator and a women's rights advocate, was encouraged by the progress.
"I believe that the brave testimonies of the amas and the government's advancement of gender equality education continue to keep the public aware of the issue, as shown by the fundraising," she said, which is allowing its roots to grow deeper.
Aware that awareness of the comfort women issue will inevitably fade, Fan said still more needs to be done.
She said she is now collaborating with the TWRF to get more information on the subject into school textbooks while also urging the government to change how the women are described in junior high and high school curriculums from "comfort women" to "military sex slaves."
"By doing this, younger generations in Taiwan will better understand the sufferings of the amas and the impact of war and sexual violence on women," she said.
Tu said the TWRF will continue to solicit government and private sector support to sustain the museum after it reopens, and try to relate the issue to sexual violence and human trafficking to maintain its relevance to younger generations.
Other measures to keep the museum afloat include launching picture books about the military sex slaves and entrust some old photos and objects to government-run museums to save on maintenance costs, she said.
"As long as the TWRF exists, it will continue to tell the story of the former Japanese military sex slaves and fight for them," she vowed.
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